Tiffany Jenkins: Art and politics don’t mix

A visitor contemplates the Hanging Heads exhibit at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
A visitor contemplates the Hanging Heads exhibit at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
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THE nation’s cultural life is now asked to tackle everything from ill health and crime to economic recovery. Trouble is, that ignores what art really is, writes Tiffany Jenkins

In 1902, at the opening of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the city’s Lord Provost justified the founding and opening of the gallery because “art was in itself a refining and improving and ennobling thing”. Can you image anyone saying something similar today?

The establishment of the museum was one of many achievements of a municipal art and gallery movement that swept Britain in the 19th century.

Art was seen as important in its own right, for its own sake, and as playing a role in transforming people’s everyday lives, lifting them out of their mindless routines through an engagement with truth and beauty.

Last week, at a major museums and galleries summit in Edinburgh, culture secretary Fiona Hyslop gave one of those speeches full of praise for the arts sector in Scotland, intended to champion success, littered with carefully chosen buzz words: “creativity”, “diversity”, “sustainability” and “participation”. In so doing, she unintentionally revealed that the Scottish Government has not got a clue about what art and cultural institutions are for.

In a speech that does not mention the name of one artist, or describe any artefact, even though it was delivered at a major conference on museums and galleries, she claimed: “We value the tremendous impact our museums and galleries bring to society and local communities.”

That sounds reasonable, at first, but what did she mean? What is the “tremendous impact” and how is it valued? There are two ways the arts make a difference, Hyslop elaborated. The problem is, neither of them has anything to do with art.

“There is evidence” she said “that shows that participating in such cultural activity can have real benefits across a number of outcomes; for education, justice, and health.”

Not just benefits, but “real benefits” come from “cultural activity” (they do not say arts, any more), in the form of education, health, and justice, apparently. Now, while there is what is disingenuously described as “evidence”, churned out by arts organisations hoping to get funds by speaking the language of outcomes, this is advocacy research, a wasteful search for the answer required, saying what they think will tick the right boxes.

Art can have a powerful impact. That is why Victorian reformers tried to use it, but what impact it has is unpredictable. When opening the National Gallery in London, the Tory Sir Robert Peel told parliament that “the exacerbation of angry and unsocial feelings might be much softened by the effects which the fine arts had ever produced upon the minds of men”.

But it didn’t. The Raphael on the wall did not prevent rioting and political unrest. Indeed, culture can cause people to feel sad and negative, to reassess their lives and find them wanting.

The Victorians built great galleries to try and change people’s lives. For the social commentator and critic John Ruskin, the idea was that art provided beauty, truth and morality as a refuge from the ills of modern society. But providing good art was considered enough to do that. There was no talk of specific social outcomes that they tried to measure. And they believed in great art.

The arts cannot address social problems directly. And nor should they be asked to. The problems of education, justice, and health are for the politicians to tackle, and it is damaging when they ask culture to do it for them. It avoids social solutions to those problems, and burdens artists and organisations with tasks they cannot fulfill If museums and galleries are the limited strategy to tackle health problems, and criminal behaviour, then shut down the departments of justice and of health and admit that we are doomed.

Hyslop also claimed a role for the arts in cultural diplomacy, citing the arts summit last summer which examined “the role of culture in deepening relationships between cultures and nations”. This too instrumentalises culture, turning it into an extension of the foreign office. Hyslop suggests that through “sharing culture”, “we are better able to understand each other and remove cultural barriers”. But culture should never be diplomatic, that is not its role, and some of the greatest work was born of war, in the heat of hate. If we were to endorse the idea that art is an instrument of diplomacy, this would lead to Islamic art being valued because it might tackle radicalisation or Islamophobia, rather than for its delicate, symmetrical designs, or because it opens our eyes to a historic civilisation. It could also lead to censorship, the closing down of artwork that did not preach peace.

Having claimed that the arts will solve all the social problems, for which politicians bear no responsibility, it would seem, Hyslop went on to praise the role of the arts in the economy. “Adding to the social value of museums and galleries is the economic value they bring to a nation.” Hyslop was unable to mention a single painting or a portrait, but she was able to calculate the return on the festivals and the so-called “creative industries”. “Our creative industries contribute £2.7 billion to the economy and direct employment exceeds 70,000.”

The elision of all kinds of cultural activities as the “creativity industries” does them a disservice. Some art is profitable. A lot is not – that is why we have state funding. Even that which does have a healthy bank balance and brings in money, will not make much of a dent on the recession. The contribution of culture to the economy is not its primary purpose. The Edinburgh festivals draws in tourists and sell millions of tickets, which is great, but what is excellent about it is the wonderful theatre, dance, music, opera, and literature.

Valuing culture on its financial return can devalue its intrinsic quality. Paintings by Picasso fetch great sums at auction, attract tourists to multiple museums who buy cappuccinos and postcards which help keep them open. That is all very well, but it is not the point of Picasso. He is a good artist because he created through paint a new but recognisable way of seeing the world. Indeed, if all art were to drain resources, it would still be worth paying for.

For ten years now, arts policy has been infused with the idea that the arts are good for society, and that they are good for the economy. Up and down the country the cultural sector skilfully talks the language of inclusion and business.

Hyslop claims to want independence for Scotland, but is happy to speak the same language of evidence, outcomes and social policy objectives as those down south. One of the reports from the UK Department of Culture Media and Sport, in London, described museums as “Centres for Social Change”. It didn’t mention sculpture or artefacts or old pots, which were pushed aside by this political agenda.

Instrumentalising the arts for social or economic purposes damages them. It asks them to do what they cannot do directly and ignores what they are. It also alienates the arts community. As we have seen with Creative Scotland, many do not recognise the way the political world want to use the arts. And that this speech by the culture secretary was delivered at height of a controversy over the beleaguered funding body, and makes many of the same mistakes, suggests that politicians have not learnt any lessons or grasped the nature of the problem.

The way to value the arts is to ask about their quality. Is it any good? That is the most important assessment. If it is, it may have other benefits but these are not the goal. “Scotland’s museum’s are in rude health”, Hyslop claimed. With this treatment, they will not be for long.